Whether it's as Candyman, Reverend Zombie in the HATCHET films, Ben in Tom Savini's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake or Mr. Bludworth in the FINAL DESTINATION franchise, you've probably seen a movie or TV show featuring Tony Todd. He's a bona fide horror legend with quite the screen presence who's up there with the likes of Robert Englund and Kane Hodder, et al. Ironically, Hodder and Todd were my first two on-camera interviews.
Even when you have worked for as long and as frequently as Todd, there is always room to dabble in something a little bit different in this ever-evolving industry, and that's exactly what the man did when he arrived in England a couple of weeks ago to shoot his very first British movie in Cardiff, Wales: DEAD OF THE NITE, an independent horror written and directed by award-winning film-maker SJ Evans (TATTOOS: A SCARRED HISTORY).
Todd's arrival gave me the opportunity to catch up with the genre star for the first time in a couple of years and find out more about his role in DEAD OF THE NITE, thoughts on the current horror scene, and his plans for the future.
TONY TODD: Hello, Adam?
BRITGEEK: Hi, Tony.
TT: Hi, man, how are you?
BG: I'm good, thanks, how are you?
TT: I'm good, considering it's the end of my five-hour publicity go-round, but you're last but not least.
BG: So DEAD OF THE NITE is your first British film in how long?
TT: Well, it's my first British film ever.
BG: Oh really?
TT: Yeah, I've never, ever filmed here, so I'm really excited about that; that was one of the selling points … I have shot in Europe, but never in the UK, so here I am in beautiful Cardiff. I arrived yesterday; ten-hour flight, three-hour drive, got here, got up bright and early, had a good breakfast and walked around town a bit, soaking up the... locality.
BG: [laughs] Excellent, well I know you've been over here a fair few times for conventions and premieres and such.
TT: Didn't I meet you at FrightFest or something?
BG: Yes, you did, at the HATCHET II premiere.
TT: At the HATCHET II premiere? Awesome. That was quite a thing; loved that.
BG: Yeah, me too, it was a lot of fun!
TT: Yeah, it was a nice reception and the first time we actually saw it with an audience, it was great. And Adam Green, I know he goes there every year.
BG: He does, yes. So what can you tell us about the story of DEAD OF THE NITE?
TT: It's a different story; it's fresh, it's new, I liked it. I met the film-makers three years ago at Memorabilia in Birmingham and they came up to me and said, 'We're gonna be film-makers', not unlike Adam, who I also met at a convention once, and there was something about them that was intriguing and honest, and it took them three years, but they did it and I never forgot that, and they wrote a script that's different and genuinely frightening and original … it kind of reminds me of that old film THE HAUNTING, the black and white film.
BG: Oh yes.
TT: Yeah, it's in that realm, but SJ Evans uses real life ghost/paranormal seekers and turns that on its head, so the movie is a movie within a movie. A group of ghost hunters enter a situation where they think it's just gonna be a walk in the park, only it may be their last stop.
BG: It's quite interesting, I think that with horror today... the trend over the last ten years has largely been blood and guts, and recently – as you mentioned the film is comparable to THE HAUNTING – we're seeing somewhat of a return to classical ghost stories. There's been INSIDIOUS and THE INNKEEPERS and THE WOMAN IN BLACK, and I think those kinds of films are coming back.
TT: Which is good, because I think people are realising that you need story first and foremost.
TT: I'm just glad we're past the torture porn point. Story, man, everything, whether it's horror or sci-fi or action or romance, everything is about the story and writers. I'm doing [much more] guest lecturing stuff at colleges and film schools and I'm telling everybody out there to just go through life, paying attention to all your experiences, and when you sit down to write a script, don't force anything, just write; use at least thirty percent of your life experience and put that in there, because then it will ring true.
BG: I think writers, generally, are quite undervalued, and yet without a good script there really is nothing.
TT: Script is everything and I don't think they're undervalued at all. I think every artist, whatever medium you work in film, whether it's special effects or acting or directing, know that, and I just wish the audience knew it more.
TT: Did you see CHRONICLE?
BG: I haven't yet, unfortunately, no.
TT: Oh, okay. I love that film and I champion it everywhere I go, and that's a case in point of two young film-makers based in Seattle, Washington who got their film made and it actually made money, and you have to see it, and try to see it in the theatre, because it's believable and yet it's fantastical and has a slam-bang ending.
BG: It's definitely on my to-watch list.
TT: Do it in the theatre if you can.
BG: I think it's actually no longer in theatres over here, unfortunately.
TT: Oh really? Okay, well, however you have to see it, see it, because it did well.
BG: I'll have to see it on the biggest screen possible.
BG: Horror is a genre that continually reinvents itself, but whenever there is something fresh and new, the films often harken back to the past, like with HATCHET. That was a film that was almost sold on being a throwback, while being something fresh in itself.
TT: But it was honest in its explanation.
BG: Even to the tagline.
TT: Uh huh.
BG: So how do you feel about the current state of horror?
TT: I think that CHRONICLE is a horror film. I mean it's not an obvious horror film, but it is, so if that's the direction then I'm content with it. I don't like... come on, we all know, working in and around this business, how many tawdry titles are thrown out there. The problem with film is a lot of people think they can make a film and they don't know really what it takes, they think it's about a stupid title, and I mean this with all the glory and honour I can give it, like say for example, Tramps vs. Vampires or whatever, okay? I respect film and I take film very, very seriously. Not seriously enough that I don't have a sense of play, as obviously experienced with Reverend Zombie, but I mean just love the medium.
I'm personally writing and gonna be directing a film called CATALYTIC in the very near future, and that's my personal take on where horror is, and that's loosely based on random acts of senseless violence that we have occurring all over the globe, from kids shooting up a high school to a mother drowning her children, all these weird things that we have going on; pilots going ballistic in cockpits, you know, and trying to put a wrap around that, and the way I've done it is I have two twin forces, two brothers, in the environment of a travelling sideshow, kind of like NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and just going for it, but with a sense of intelligence. That's the only thing I can do.
BG: In DEAD OF THE NITE, you play the part of Ruber.
TT: Yeah, I play the caretaker of this manor that the ghost hunters come to visit. I have a back story: I've been in the UK for thirty years, I was falsely accused of murdering my wife, who I loved dearly. I'm wearing the same suit that I wore when I first arrived here, and I'm kind of embittered and I've been brought before the police five different times, for different things, and so clearly when you meet me, you're confused about how much of the truth am I telling and am I really responsible or am I not, and that becomes part of the guessing game of the story as it unfolds.
BG: There's a bit of mystery then. All good stories have that element.
TT: It's one of the mysteries in the film, there's several mysteries, but that's one. I'm also in the beginning of the film; I'm part of that expository stuff.
BG: Quite often in films you're cast in that kind of expository role.
TT: Well, I guess because I'm intelligent [laughs], I know how to tell a story. Yeah, I would cast me as an exposition person. But in this case it's not just exposition. I'm clearly a suspect.
BG: I think you've got such an on-screen presence that whenever you appear, people quite simply listen.
TT: Well look, Adam made me tell a ten-minute story in HATCHET II [laughs].
BG: Yeah! [laughs] I like the way you put your own spin on the characters to ensure that the exposition doesn't feel like exposition, if you know what I mean.
TT: Well yeah, but those of us that know film thematics know what exposition is and what it isn't [laughs]. I just went recently to see TITANIC 3D with my girl and clearly half of that movie is exposition [laughs] and then you already know what's gonna happen, but you know, women love that film.
BG: They do, yes! [laughs]
TT: [laughs] I told a couple buddies, yeah I'm actually going to see it and they said, 'Again?!' [laughs].
BG: In the third dimension!
TT: [laughs] Whatever!
BG: I've known SJ and [producer] Shoo for a couple of years now...
BG: ...and I know they're very interested in the paranormal; they've been on ghost hunts themselves.
TT: They do ghost hunting themselves?
BG: As far as I know.
TT: I didn't know that. Hmm, interesting.
BG: It's clear that the supernatural aspect – or at least the implied supernatural aspect – of the film is something they're passionate about or interested in, so do you have any beliefs when it comes to the paranormal?
TT: Yeah, I've seen some things. I grew up a poor kid in Hartford, Connecticut around the edge of the projects and my street was surrounded by graveyards. I didn't think anything of it as a growing child, but we played in those graveyards quite a bit, perhaps too much, till there came a point where we were like, 'Wait a minute, maybe hanging out here on a Friday night isn't a good idea,' so yeah, I've had my experiences, my strange occurrences. That's life. The school I went to, the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, which is the homestead of the famous playwright Eugene O'Neill, that place is definitely haunted, but in a good way. I used to hang out in the library at night and I would go in there, I'd go to the bathroom and come back and there would be certain books that were all of the sudden on the floor, and I didn't take it as an ominous sign. I'd look at what they were and all those books that always fell were books that totally became a part of my process. I think sometimes ghosts can be confused with angels, and I definitely believe in angels.
BG: DEAD OF THE NITE was partly financed by a crowd-funding campaign. What are your views on websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo and their impact on independent film-making?
TT: I personally haven't done that so can't tell you first-hand notice of what that is, but I'm proud of them because, like I said, I met them three years ago and somehow they were able to secure the funding and they even had a delay in between some filming, so I think that's admirable. I've seen too many people try to do cheap films and sell them at conventions. There's no way you're ever going to make money that way or reach a wide audience, which should be everybody's goal with film-making, to truly get distribution. I hope that attaching my name to them helps them and I believe in them. They absolutely sincerely wrote a credible story and a taught story, there's not a lot of wasted time, there's no frivolous scenes of sex and retribution thereof. They avoided some of the pitfalls of bad horror.
BG: It shows that they're passionate film-makers.
TT: Yeah. If you're passionate about what you want to do, all the things you need to do to make it happen will fall in line, so for that I totally applaud them.
BG: As you mentioned, your directorial debut is CATALYTIC, which you also wrote.
TT: Yes, and am acting in.
BG: And acting in? Oh, excellent.
TT: I surround myself with the best actors I can get for the other roles.
BG: I saw that Noah Hathaway from TROLL is attached.
TT: That's correct.
BG: And James Duval, Greg Araki's right-hand man.
TT: That's correct.
BG: You worked with the both of them on SUSHI GIRL, which you also produced.
TT: Correct, yeah. As a matter of fact, two other people from SUSHI GIRL are also attached, Andy Mackenzie and Dave Dastmalchian. We were all in SUSHI GIRL. SUSHI GIRL's the best part I've ever had in my life and it was a wonderful experience, and we're days away from a major announcement of theatrical distribution. I can tell you that Magnolia Films is distributing us domestically, but we're going to get a theatrical. It's an awesome film. Mark Hamill is also in it, and it introduces this lovely woman named Cortney Palm, and we have cameos from people like Danny Trejo, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey... it's a straight-up gangster film: one survivor, tons of bullets, good dialogue and crackling suspense. We have a good cast and we had a damn good time, and hats off to the Assembly Line people, who [are] the group that wrote and got it together, and it'll be Assembly Line who's producing CATALYTIC, and I'm on my fifth pass for that. Even though they're frightened of me and they love and respect me, they have the balls to give me very clear, specific notes to be able to make this vision accessible and at the same time uniquely personal to my vision.
TT: Thank you. And I have a hell of a soundtrack, everything from just obscure... I can't name a title cause I don't want the price to go up, but from obscure rock to well known soul classics.
BG: A wide variety of songs to suit the film.
TT: Yes, very eclectic like I am in my own musical taste, so for example Sam Cooke meets Marilyn Manson.
BG: [laughs] That's a very interesting combination.
TT: Yeah, it's all part of the world, the whole melting pot of the world. I'm trying to do a rock 'n' roll epic, you know, but something that has a beginning, middle and end. I want people to come out of my film disturbed. Too many times people come out of horror films laughing and giggling, and this is no reflection on FINAL DESTINATION, but I experienced a lot of that with that. You have some of the most brutal deaths happening and people are giggling all the time because they've been told it's safe and it's okay to do so, right? My film, I take it as a warning. It's an explanation as to why things are so fucked up, and hopefully that'll be visualised.
BG: As you said with FINAL DESTINATION and people laughing at death and destruction, these days the experience of being truly disturbed by a film just doesn't happen enough.
TT: No, it doesn't. I remember when I saw ROSEMARY'S BABY, I was like shaking and there's not a drop of blood in that movie. It's the psychological implications and belief; hiring the right actors that make you believe that situation, and not tongue-in-cheek or violence that's so far out that you know you're already let off the hook. I'm into a more provocative... you know, I may not get the audience that my producers need to get in order to make it profitable, but I'm gonna try because I have such great, diverse actors that are imminently watchable. But it's gonna be disturbing.
BG: I think it goes back to what you were saying about the whole “torture porn” thing. It's so easy just to throw blood and guts at the screen, and if you start off a film with some massive death scene, then people are almost desensitised to what could come next. A film that's genuinely disturbing is always the product of a good script and story.
TT: Exactly. There's so many real life news items that happen, there's so many that one day it's this and then they disappear. In America, just two weeks ago, we had these two kids that put on Facebook that they were going to go out and shoot black people and they did it, and they killed three black men in the course of two days, and that story's already disappeared. You have the pilot who fucking flipped out in the cockpit. To me, that's one of the most frightening things in the world that could happen, I fly all the time. Random acts of senseless violence, that's the theme.
BG: I think real life is often more disturbing than anything that we see in the movies.
TT: Well, as an artist, all we can draw from is real life and real people, that's all we got. I watch what people watch, like this whole WRATH OF THE TITANS thing and all this fake history; this re-written history that never happened like that, whatever. It's so popular and yet what is it? I'm not interested in movies like that and god bless them, they make money, they feed the machine that makes movies keep making money. Did you see THE HUNGER GAMES?
BG: I haven't seen that yet, no.
TT: Um, yeah, you know, it made money. I watch everything. The first half was great, the set-up was great, I wasn't really happy with the conclusion, but that's just me, and I find it interesting that even though it made 158 million, the director isn't going to be involved in the second one.
BG: Yeah, I heard about that.
TT: I don't understand. Something about the studio, in spite of the fact that the movie made so much money, is trying to shorten his shooting time?
TT: So do you not appreciate what he's done for you?
BG: I know, it just doesn't make sense. It's very strange.
TT: Nothing makes sense. That's why if I wasn't an actor, I'd be a musician because musicians... Pink Floyd for example, nothing makes fucking sense. Talking Heads stopped making sense. Rolling Stones, you know, I've heard stories about when they go on tour they arrive in separate limos and then they don't speak to each other and yet they get on stage and they're The Rolling Stones. And you don't like each other? Are you serious?! What's not to like? Oh, money? Money you like. Let's face it, the world has gone insane, so we're all gradually insane, it's just how much we know we are, right? [laughs]
BG: Right. Products of an insane world.
TT: [laughs] Exactly.
BG: Brilliant, well it's been an absolute pleasure to speak to you again, Tony.
TT: Thank you. It's a pleasure talking to you again and I hope you've got something that's sane within this and usable [laughs].
BG: The more insane the better, I think! [laughs]
TT: All right, terrific, I'll remember that [laughs].
So there you have it. Tony Todd is indeed a gentleman and a scholar, and here are three world exclusive stills of the man in action in DEAD OF THE NITE.
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